Auto Detailing - May 2010

Express Detailing — Less Equipment, Less Chemicals, Less Training
By Prentice St. Clair

Car wash owners searching for additional profit centers find that offering detailing to their customers is a pretty obvious choice. Many choose to offer express detailing because it’s relatively inexpensive to supply and relatively simple to train staff. In this article, I will discuss the options for express detailing.


The first decision to be made is which type of detailing to offer. Some operators choose to not offer express services at all. Each has his or her own reasons, but some I have heard include “most of the vehicles that come into our car wash just don’t fit the express profile” and “we just feel that ‘express detailing’ is an oxymoron — you either do it all the way or not at all.”

Then there are the operators who choose to only offer express detailing, citing the fact that express requires less equipment, chemicals, and training than does full-service detailing. Others like the fact that express can be performed in the finish area whereas full-service typically requires a dedicated space. In some cases, the reason for refusing to offer full-service detailing is simply a matter of lack of interest among the clientele — either there are plenty of detail shops in the area, or the vehicles that come in are well maintained by the customers.

Next, let’s explore what menu items can be offered specifically on the express side.


Most operators agree that express detailing is something that is added onto the car wash package the customer chooses. Once the car comes out of the wash tunnel, it is whisked away to the express detail area. The most common express package options are:

  • Express exterior wax application
  • Express mat cleaning
  • Express fabric seat cleaning
  • Express leather seat cleaning and conditioning
  • Express interior

A single trainee can perform most of these services in 15 minutes or less, assuming proper training, equipment, and techniques. The express interior package, because it includes multiple items, is probably best performed by two or more technicians to ensure the service is completed in the promised time.

Express Exterior
The most common express service is the application of some kind of wax product to the painted panels of the vehicle. One or two technicians, using a spray-on-wipe-off product, hand-apply paste or cream wax; the wax can also be applied with an orbital buffer.

Typically, the service will include dressing tires and trim and a final wipe of windows. Some also include a quick interior vacuum and interior windows as well. It really depends on what you are charging, what the customers expect, and your capability (e.g., number of staff as well as their efficiency) to return the vehicle in a reasonable time.

The benefit to the customer is a coat of protection on the paint that lasts one to two months, depending on the quality of the chemical used. Compare this to most tunnel-applied chemicals, which only give one or two weeks of protection, if that. The express wax also enhances gloss because it fills in micro-scratches that tend to dull the appearance of the paint surface.

Express Mat Cleaning
This service is designed to clean and freshen lightly soiled mats. Mats with heavy stains or extensive ground-in dirt are typically not good candidates for express mat cleaning and should be referred to the full-service area for thorough cleaning and hot-water extraction.

The service can be performed using a hot-water extractor, a stand-alone mat-shaking machine, or a dry-vapor steamer. A common problem with express mat cleaning is that the mats are returned to the customer damp. If they are placed back into position, they will quickly become soiled as the dampness attracts dirt from the bottom of the passengers’ shoes.

Some operators attempt to skirt this problem by placing damp mats in the trunk or rear compartment to dry. There are several problems with this approach. First, if the mats are not laid out with the carpet side completely exposed, they will not dry for hours. Most trunks are not large enough to lay out four mats. Second, most people have personal belongings in their trunk and really don’t want mats placed on top of those belongings. Third, the customer must replace his or her own mats later in the day, which, to me, does not sound like a very convenient part of the service.

Even worse than mats that are damp, are mats that are cleaned with lots of soap, leaving them damp and soapy. The soap actually attracts dirt faster than if the mats had never been cleaned. Soapy mats also tend to smell. In fact, damp mats in general can often lead to a musty odor in the car.

To combat this problem, some operators are turning to a technology that is relatively new to the detailing industry — steam. With a steam machine, the mats are cleaned with super-heated steam that effectively loosens most dirt and many stains without soaking the mats. Additionally, the steam also kills germs and odors, leaving the mats smelling fresh. Best of all, the mats can be returned immediately to the vehicle foot wells virtually dry.

Some operators include vacuuming under the mats to remove dirt and debris. Others include cleaning of the exposed carpeting not covered by the mats. I believe that it is not necessary to clean under the mats because this is not going to be seen once the mats are back in place. If a customer wants all carpeting in the vehicle cleaned, then it’s not really an express service anymore and should be referred to the full-service area.

Express Fabric Seat Cleaning
This item has the same issues as express mat cleaning. The seats should not be heavily soiled or stained. Express fabric seat cleaning is not about specialized stain removal. It is about a light cleaning and refreshing of the seats.

The choice of machines is a hot-water extractor or steamer. If the extractor is used, the seats will be soaking wet.

Some operators place plastic covers on the seats so the customer can drive the vehicle without their clothes becoming damp. Again, we leave the customer in charge of completing our job — he or she must remove and discard the plastic upon returning home for the evening, then make sure to leave the windows cracked so that the seats can dry overnight. If it’s cold or damp weather, the seats may not be completely dry the next morning.

The dry-vapor steamer solves this problem in the same fashion as it does for mats and carpeting.

Express Leather Seat Cleaning and Conditioning
Automotive leather needs regular conditioning in order to stay soft and supple. Most customers recognize this important fact. Leather is a natural material (animal hide), with an inherent level of moisture, and dries out over time.

Most automotive leather is coated with a colored protective dye that can become soiled with body oils, lotions, and general grime. This can be cleaned with a microfiber dampened with automotive leather cleaner. The cleaner can also be sprayed and scrubbed with a soft-bristled brush, then the cleaner and residue wiped away with a dry towel.

Leather can also be effectively clean-ed with a dry-vapor steamer, thus eliminating the need for any cleaning chemical. The steamer will also sanitize the leather at the same time. This is a great marketing tool in selling the express leather-cleaning package.

Once the leather is cleaned, it must be conditioned with a premium automotive leather conditioner. Do not use any kind of general dressing, especially those designed for plastic and vinyl surfaces — these will leave the seats dangerously slippery and feeling greasy.

Express Interior
There are many clever names that have been adopted for this service, like “interior super-clean.” It entails, at a minimum, wiping down and dressing all of the plastic and vinyl surfaces, like the dash, center console, and door panels.

Some operators include some or all of the other interior express items mentioned above. If this is done, care must be taken to staff the job correctly or inform the customer that it may take longer than 15 minutes.

Other operators keep the express interior separate from the other services, but allow the customer to choose as many interior items as he or she wants, with a discount on the total price. In this case, the customer can be informed that, by selecting several individual menu items that each take 15 minutes to provide, the wait time might be extended. Of course, there is some overlap, and with a couple of technicians working a well-choreographed procedure, it is still reasonable to expect that the service can be done within 30 minutes.


There are several express menu item options. The operator can certainly choose which items to offer his customer, based on several factors, including the typical requests of the drive-up clientele, the staffing capability, the equipment choices, and the space available to provide service.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail or call (619) 701-1100.

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